Left Right Realism in Criminology Term Paper

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Left/Right Realism

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The terms Left and Right Realism in criminology present something of a misnomer, because although Left Realism arose as a response to the emergence of Right Realism, the definition and application of "realism" in either school of thought could not be more different. Of the two, Left Realism is more convincing, because its use of the term "realism" is both more justified and more universally applied. Specifically, Right Realism is essentially a reactionary theory that a priori rejects the notion that the cause of crime is either intelligible or worth knowing. Right Realism assumes the existence of crime without suggesting an explanation for that crime; instead, it focuses on official reactions to the phenomenon of crime and their effect on crime rates, such that "realist" perspective in this case is applied only to determining the utility of potential responses, an endeavor that will inevitably fail due to the impossibility of objectively assessing the impact of a policy without first understanding the causes of the problem that policy is meant to alleviate. In contrast, Left Realism applies a realist perspective to the phenomenon of crime itself, rather than presupposing its existence, and as such it is able to actually explain the causes of crime, which in turn leads to more effective crime reduction methods. Specifically, Left Realism posits that crime emerges from the relative deprivation in a society with structural inequalities which simultaneously encourage a certain kind of life while denying the possibility of achieving it. In the view of Left Realism, crime is a sort of natural consequence of an inherently contradictory social system, and as such it is not an aberration or deviation from society at large, but rather a characteristic element of society. As such, Left Realism able to offer empirically better solutions to crime reduction, because the theory can account for the eternal process of action and reaction that is crime and society's response to it.

Term Paper on Left Right Realism in Criminology Assignment

Before explaining Left Realism in greater detail, it is necessary to first define and explicate Right Realism, because the former is actually a direct response to the latter. Right Realism arose during the early 1980s, and it can actually be seen as a kind of theoretical, ideological, and political response to the social unrest of the 1960s and a widespread disillusionment with the legitimacy of the state in the United States and Britain. As will be seen, Right Realism is, by definition, dependent on a rejection of certain avenues of inquiry and sources of evidence, because it is born out of and continues to function as a reaction to and rejection of new ideas. With the decline of leftist idealist criminology, the early 1980s saw the emergence of a strain of theory calling itself Right Realism while circumscribing its analysis and empirical standards within the ideology of the larger American and British conservative movements.

At first blush the notion of criminological realism sounds immediately productive, because the application of rigorous scientific standards and empirical evidence to any issue will be helpful simply by providing more accurate data about the problem. However, because Right Realism emerged out a conservative reaction to left-wing agitation and social tension, almost immediately its application of these standards was determined by an ideology that a priori rejected certain aspects of society as worth researching. Perhaps the most obvious examples of this are concerned with race.

This is not to suggest that Right Realism is inherently racist or otherwise aligned against minorities, but rather than Right Realism, much like the larger ideological movements that spawned it, tends to treat race (like crime) as a discrete concept or feature, rather than attempting to uncover the social and political origins of it. As a result, Right Realism's attempts to, for example, determine the influence of race in the use of certain police tactics or the effect of race on the likelihood of engaging in criminal acts are inherently flawed, because they cannot account for the origins of race itself, and thus cannot ultimately account for the relationship between race and crime.

A good example of this tendency comes from James Q. Wilson's 1985 essay "The Rediscovery of Character: Private Virtue and Public Policy." Though not exclusively focused on crime and criminology, Wilson himself was a notable criminologist by the time of the essays writing, having pioneered the ultimately faulty "Broken Windows" theory of crime prevention and served on multiple presidential advisory boards (Harcourt & Ludwig 2006, p. 271). Though widely accepted as fact by many law enforcement agencies today, including the police departments of the United States' three largest cities, as of 2006 a metastudy of the extant literature demonstrated that there is of yet no empirical evidence to support the Broken Windows theory of crime prevention, and furthermore, that when compared to alternate policing paradigms, Broken Windows does not seem to be worth the relative cost (Harcourt & Ludgwid 2006). By comparing the basic concepts of Wilson's Broken Windows theory with his statements regarding "private virtue," one is able to see how Wilson's work is an example of Right Realism's tendency to ignore certain variables, ultimately in the support of an ideological end. Highlighting this problematic tendency will in turn help demonstrate why Left Realism is a superior theory due to the way it applies reasonable standards of question and evidence at every level of investigation.

The problem that plagues the Broken Windows theory is the same problem demonstrated in Wilson's 1985 essay. Namely, in both cases a certain sociological phenomenon is taken as a kind of black box, neither worthy of investigation nor even capable of being investigated. In the case of Wilson's essay, the problem arises in his discussion of welfare, because he reaches the conclusion that the reason for the rise in single-parent households, and black single-parent households in particular, is that "in short, the character of a significant number of persons changed" as a result of changing welfare policies (Wilson 1985, p. 9). However, he does not reach this conclusion based on empirical data regarding the (ill-defined) "character" shift in a portion of the population, but by observing that the rise of single-parent households has increased at a faster rate in black communities and then, one presumes, leaving it up to his readers to make the connection between this observation and what might be implied by it, were race to be considered an immutable, socially and economically discrete characteristic. He does go so far as to suggest that this supposed change in the character of a certain subset of the population is a "moral problem," which has the effect of making his claim regarding the supposed inferiority of black communities a moral, rather than strictly racial question (Wilson 1985, p. 9).

The problem with this analysis is that it simply assumes the disproportionate rise in single-parent households in the black community it itself a kind of discrete, irreducibly complex phenomenon, whose origins can extend no further than the individuals themselves, individuals who, according to Wilson, think it is "good to sire or bear illegitimate children" (Wilson 1985, p. 9). Wilson is not actually interested in determining the actual reason behind the observed disparity, because he has already found his answer in the form of "character." Like a preacher saying that God created the universe and then refusing to explain where God came from, Wilson is essentially arguing that all of a sudden, a large portion of black men simply decided to father illegitimate children in a variation of the very same "welfare queen" trope that was being deployed by politicians on the right.

In the same way, Wilson's Broken Windows theory of crime presents disorder, such as broken windows and low-level crime, as the seed of more serious crime, because high instances of disorder indicate to potential criminals that a given area is not well-maintained or supported. However, this theory does not seek out the root causes of that disorder in the first place, and thus cannot incorporate the institutional and structural causes of disorder into its quantitative analyses of disorder and the effect of Broken Windows-style policing. In short, then, Wilson is guilty of stopping his investigations at an arbitrary point decided upon by nothing other than the implicit demand of an ideological presupposition.

This tendency recurs in Right Realist work other than Wilson's. For example, in their essay "Street Stops and Broken Windows: Terry, Race, and Disorder in New York City," Fagan and Davies (2001) argue that the New York Police department uses race as a major factor in its stop-and-frisks, against the better advice of criminological theory and certain legal standards. While Fagan and Davies do manage to point out an important fact in their analysis of NYPD data concerning the reasons for stopping individuals, they nevertheless err by arguing that the problem is that the NYPD is merely implementing Broken Windows theory "out of context," rather than the fact that Broken Windows theory at its core is flawed because it posits disorder as a discretely identifiable phenomenon (Fagan &… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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